Carmina Gadelica: Hymns & Incantations

Carmina Gadelica: Hymns & Incantations

by Alexander Carmichael
Lindisfarne Press, Hudson, NY, 1992; paperback.

This substantial book (689 pp) is a treasure much sought after by Celtophiles the world over. Its contents have appeared only in small excerpts in other books, leaving one longing for more. Now, after almost a hundred years, the collection is available to us with a scholarly introduction by John MacInnes. Best of all, there are the intimate commentaries of Carmichael himself giving us insights into the Gaelic-speaking folk of his time who took him into their confidence as they shared the beauty and simplicity of their prayers. What stories! One tells of a man who walked back twenty-six miles to make sure that his invocation would never appear in print and be read by a cold eye!

From these incantations emerge (so significant for us today) accumulative proof of the extent to which these Celtic people included the sacred and holy in their everyday life. No separation of spirit and matter exists in Celtic Christianity. They live, according to Esther de Waal, the Celtic scholar, with" God under my Roof" and "At the Edge of Glory." Whether it's blessing an infant, a cow, or a journey, or lighting a fire, or welcoming a stranger, or praying for healing or good weather, "the Blessed Three" are invoked with touching and poetic feeling. These prayers are lovesome and tender, humble and full of awe and gratitude for life. Who can resist "A Clipping Blessing"for a sheep?

Go shorn and come woolly
Bear the Beltane lamb,
Be the lovely Bride thee endowing,
And the fair Mary sustaining thee .
Michael the chief be shielding thee
From the evil dog and from the fox . . .
And from the taloned birds of
destructive bills from the taloned
birds of hooked bills.

The prayers are both pagan and Christian, The Bridget or Bride (pronounced Bridie) invoked is the Christianized Goddess Brid of the Celts, she who ruled over flocks, wisdom, and laughter. Beltane is the ancient May Day festival marking the zodiacal midpoint between spring equinox and summer solstice. Here is one to "The New Moon":

When I see the new moon,
It becomes me to say my rune;
It becomes me to praise the Being
of life
For His kindness and His goodness.
Seeing how many a man and woman
have gone hence
Over the black river of the abyss,
Since last thy countenance
shone on me,
Thou new moon of the heavens!

As recently as 1967, the Outer Hebrides were still without electricity. I am glad that I witnessed that. Over the years since then, I have traveled there several times again and seen the incursions of so called "civilization." With electrical power has come TV and an increasing use of the English language, but Gaelic is still spoken and sung, and the ceilidhs and strupaks continue- the dances and visits where the housewife bids you "come away in" and rushes to " throw up some scones" for a wee strupak. The magic of place dominates all the West of Scotland. Words can scarcely convey the brooding power of the landscape and the colors of the sea and the sky. Weather is the great deity hovering over this world, so no small wonder that invocations are there to the elements in their terror and their wild beauty.

In Carmichael's day, these people were by all standards considered to be poor, uneducated, and backward. So poor, that many escaped over the seas to this country. But thanks to this collector's loving ear and wise insight, we have this lost legacy of wealth of the spirit. Looked at in another way, these hardy people were richer than we because their lives had meaning and they saw the presence of God every where they looked.

If you are one to put love in the soup as you stir it or see the goddess flirting out of a flower 's face or are fearful of the national deficit and your standard of living, then this is the book for you!


Summer 1993